Polite and patronising: The weapons of the British shock jock. Just ask James O'Brien

"It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight, pen to a test."

I don’t know James O’Brien. We don’t socialise in the same circles. I don’t even have a social circle. My friendship ‘network’ is more like a pile of Twiglets spilt in a pub carpark. But while I don’t know James O’Brien, I know his work. I have consumed it for years, as a listener to LBC — yes, it’s masochistic — and a viewer of Newsnight. 

O’Brien, an alumnus of Ampleforth College and The Daily Express, is 12 years older than me. While we were both at school at the same time, I was rocking it in reception while he was doing his A-Levels. I was a young journalist in trade titles and specialist magazines for music and technology when he was already writing a prominent gossip column for a national newspaper, and then becoming a radio presenter whose audio essays at the start of shows have that magical quality that journalists call ‘cut through’. 

James O’Brien’s niche on LBC is to be Mr Reasonable, who sometimes gets angry at things, and other times plays faux-naive to highlight an injustice to his listeners. It is a powerful and effective act. However, I am of the belief that while O’Brien plays a mild iconoclast on the radio, he is, in fact, solidly establishment and heavily invested in things not changing too much. Above all things he values ‘civility’ and ‘politeness’. 

I consider politeness for politeness’s sake to be cosh, a kind of social control used to quietly but insistently tell people to shut up. 

I’ve tweeted fairly often about James O’Brien’s show and his political stances, particularly during the Brexit referendum and the subsequent internecine battles.

My interventions, I thought, were akin to a mosquito harassing a leopard seal. But it seems that my comments had been read and taken on board, at least as sleights by the broadcaster. 

Last week, someone @’d both me and James O’Brien into a tweet about Sarah Vine, the Daily Mail columnist who I am currently beginning a defamation action against. I replied to this tweet saying that I’m currently suing. James O’Brien’s response was to say: 

“You’ve been pretty rude to me on here, champ. But good luck all the same.” 

And I’m still angry about it this week. 

Why? That one word, “champ”. I’d have preferred “prick” or “tosser” or any number of other outright insults. But “champ” to a 36-year-old man is patronisation as a weapon. While both James and I are professionals working in the media, he is a vastly better-remunerated figure. He’s a star. I’m a grafter. 

And James O’Brien knows that. He patronises callers that irritate him and uses ‘politeness’ on a daily basis to lift himself above Nick Ferrari, who precedes him during the morning shows.

In O’Brien’s world, the debate is had with politeness on the surface, and silencing, belittling tone and word choice on the next level down. If he tells you to ‘fuck off’, he’ll also chastise you for making him have to debase himself with such gutter language. 

Some might say I should just ignore that “champ”, but it says everything. As a journalist who has been in the industry for 15 years, working my way up and around with no help besides that from mentors who saw potential, certainly no family connections — which O’Brien did have (he is adopted so it’s worth saying that I have nothing but respect for his parents doing such a wonderful thing and setting him up so well in life), the “champ” is unbearable. Will I be treated like someone who deserves to be a journalist when I’m 40? Will I have earned it then?